Garment workers unionize to win brighter future

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Modern garment workers in the U.S. are just as angry about their low wages and atrocious working conditions as were their predecessors 100 years ago. But now most of the faces bent over the sewing machines and ironing boards are those of brown- and yellow-skinned women from Latin America and Asia rather than those of Jewish immigrants from Europe.

For many seamstresses, however, little else has changed. They still toil for 10-16 hours a day, six or seven days a week, without health benefits, pensions, sick leave, paid vacation, or overtime pay.

In California, the hard labor of garment workers has created the second-largest business in the state. Eighty-five percent of the clothing industry’s 140,000-strong workforce are women, people of color, and/or immigrants. And 90 percent of the factories employing them are considered sweatshops, rampantly violating labor laws and health and safety codes.

But, just as they have done historically, clothing workers today are organizing, boycotting, and striking to resist their plight.

Carrying on a heroic tradition. In southern California, for example, garment workers have boldly stepped forward to demand better conditions.

Of the area’s advocacy groups and labor organizations devoting their efforts to garment workers, the most well-known are Korean Immigrant Workers Advocates (KIWA) and United Needle, Industrial, and Textile Employees union (UNITE).

Through aggressive unionization drives, UNITE is increasing its ranks. The conditions and wages of its members have improved, and nonunion garment workers are seeking UNITE out. UNITE also organizes multiracial picket lines that range from condemning NAFTA and anti-worker legislation to calling for an end to sweatshops, boycotts of their products, and an end to child labor abuses.

In retaliation, bosses are laying off active union organizers and calling in the Immigration and Naturalization Services to deport employees. Levi-Strauss this year laid off 6,400 textile workers, 800 of them UNITE members. In Los Angeles, the INS has raided more than 75 garment-related businesses.

Unlike many other unions, UNITE recognizes that deportation is a racist intimidation tactic and stands up for the rights of undocumented immigrant workers (“illegals”).

For its part, the group KIWA scored a major victory against clothing industrialist Jessica McClintock through boycotts and innovative picket lines in wealthy districts where McClintock fashions were sold, including Beverly Hills.

The Garment Workers Justice Campaign, spearheaded by KIWA, secured back wages for 12 Chinese garment workers McClintock had refused to pay. In addition, the campaign won money to educate employees about fair labor standards, a bilingual toll-free number to report sweatshop abuses, scholarships for the workers, and an agreement to investigate setting up an independent program monitoring the industry.

Owners without consciences. KIWA also joined with other groups, including UNITE, to form the coalition Sweatshop Watch, dedicated to eliminating garment sweatshops both in the U.S. and abroad.

In 1996, Sweatshop Watch kicked off the “Retailers Accountability Campaign” to pressure shops to adopt a Retailers Code of Conduct. Targeted stores were Robinson’s May, Sears Roebuck, Neiman Marcus, Target, Macy’s, Montgomery Ward, and Nordstroms. These were the outlets who made the most profits from products manufactured in two notorious California factories exposed in recent years: an El Monte slaveshop where 72 Thai workers were held in guarded compounds and forced to work up to 22 hours a day for as little as 59 cents an hour; and a downtown Los Angeles sweatshop, owned by the same people, where 90 Latinos labored under extreme conditions, including threats of physical violence against them.

This campaign failed: not one retailer signed the Code of Conduct. Why? Because appeals to conscience will never be sufficient to make bosses accountable to the workers whose exploitation is the backbone of their wealth. Only a concerted display of the power of workers to hit the employers where it hurts, in their silk-lined pockets, can wrest reforms.

Strength through unity. In the past several years, advocacy groups other than unions have played a significant role in struggles for workers’ rights. Their tireless work is to be hailed and congratulated.

However, some have tended to separate themselves from the organized labor movement – i.e., unions – and operate independently from it.

For example, a pamphlet from the New York-based organization National Mobilization Against Sweatshops lists as one of eight “myths” that “trade unionism can wipe out sweatshops” and calls for building “a new labor movement that goes beyond collective bargaining to fight for political power and systemic change.”

It’s certainly true that workers need not only unions but also political power and systemic change. But there is no substitute for unions in the pursuit of justice for workers. No mass organization, no matter how well-intended, can replace them.

Only unions have the ability to set up bargaining units and negotiate contracts for better wages and benefits. Only unions have the power to organize the working class to withhold its labor, to strike.

To achieve results, community organizations and unions must forge a serious, unbreakable alliance. Only through stitching our efforts together can we bring about meaningful and lasting improvements for the workers in most desperate need of a new social tapestry.

Cheryl Deptowicz, a Filipina Chinese American and self-described flamboyant feminist, is a secretary and L.A. Radical Women member.

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